The cost of poaching in the state is about to go up, drastically, if state lawmakers approve a bill introduced last week in the Ohio House of Representatives.
The proposal, House Bill 238, would significantly boost the restitution values of illegally taken wildlife and fish and would make restitution mandatory, rather than at a local judge's option, according to State Rep. Robert Latta (R., Bowling Green), who crafted the bill with House colleague Jimmy Stewart (R., Albany).
The increased values also could make a felony out of the poaching of some wildlife.
In a roll-out of the proposal in Columbus Thursday, Mr. Latta posed with a huge set of buck's antlers that had been taken from an illegally killed white-tailed deer.
"You sure wouldn't be holding them if you'd illegally taken them with the new restitution legislation," he said. "There is a big black market out there for these antlers."
Indeed, Ohio has enjoyed a growing national reputation in hunting circles for producing trophy-class bucks. The state is attracting increasing numbers of nonresident hunters, many thought to be in search, legally, of big bucks.
Under House Bill 238, the set of antlers that Mr. Latta displayed from a poaching case would cost a convicted poacher $15,850 (based on a score exceeding the example in the graphic at right). "Right now, it's only $400, that's it," the lawmaker said, adding that a poacher easily could sell a trophy rack for $5,000 to $10,000.
Under current law, individuals caught poaching face misdemeanor criminal charges and are supposed to be ordered to pay a restitution fine based on the type of animal killed. That portion of the law, it turns out, is unevenly applied by judges. In any case, the current fee schedule varies from $25 to $1,000, depending on the animal, with fines going to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Trophy deer antlers are big business, much desired by collectors who will pay thousands of dollars for a single record-book set.
The legislation would give the wildlife chief the authority to revamp all restitution, including antler-scoring criteria and formulas. The proposal also would establish a reimbursement table based on recreational, aesthetic, educational, and economic values of the fish or wildlife at hand, whether the animal is on a state rare, threatened, or endangered list, and the importance of an animal to future population recruitment and population dynamics.
A convicted poacher would have to pay the fine as a condition of restoring hunting or fishing privileges. The bill, moreover, applies not only to the taker, but to anyone who buys, sells, or simply possesses illegally taken wildlife and fish.
Restitution would have to be paid in addition to any criminal penalties levied by a judge upon a conviction. Up to now, most wildlife poaching violations are misdemeanors, with the most serious, a first-degree misdemeanor, carrying a maximum penalty of six months jail and a $1,000 fine.
"As a hunter, Ohio hunting education instructor, and outdoor enthusiast, I believe it is important to protect our natural resources," the legislator stated. "We must punish those who illegally take game in Ohio, and this legislation will do that by hitting violators in the wallet."
Adds Mr. Stewart: "This legislation is in response to the large [deer poaching] bust in Meigs County and other counties, but poaching has been an ongoing problem in this region, and it's not fair to the large majority of law-abiding hunters who follow the rules.
"Considering what the trophy-sized bucks sell for on the black market, I think it's appropriate that the fine be commensurate with their market value."
The two lawmakers put House Bill 238 in the hopper after investigations of poaching rings in Franklin, Hamilton, Marion, and Meigs counties, which especially targeted deer and waterfowl, among other wildlife. Suspects in the cases were charged with more than 200 violations.
"Texas has led the country," Mr. Latta said about significantly increasing restitution penalties. Without high penalties, he said, "there is not really a reason for poachers to stop."
First, he explained, poachers can play the odds of getting caught and convicted, neither of which is a sure thing. Then the current deterrents - a $400 restitution fine and hunting or fishing license revocation - are meaningless to law-breakers in high-stakes games. Most poachers do not bother with licenses in the first place.
"It's a good piece of legislation," said Dave Graham, chief of the Ohio Division of Wildlife. "It's long overdue."
Mr. Graham cited the need for restitution to match the commercial value of fish and game.
"Current statutes do not deter criminals from breaking the law and [conducting] illegal commercialization" he said. "This bill provides the necessary tools to stop this criminal activity."
Indeed, if public reaction to a variety of cases over the years is any indication, the poaching of fish and wildlife is a very sore point, especially when the lawbreakers are given what is seen as little more than a wrist-slap from the courts. Mr. Latta said the House proposal would require mandatory restitution, rather than leaving it to the discretion of a judge.
But Mike Taylor, assistant law enforcement administrator for the wildlife division, said some fine-tuning may be needed with the Latta-Stewart proposal because of a related section of law - which some judges ignore - that already makes restitution mandatory.
Basically, he explained, it boils down to some judges resenting being told what to do by mandates, to the point that some might, in effect, throw out mandatory restitution cases by finding accused poachers not guilty. Thus the division expects to recommend that judges be allowed the option of restitution and that a proposal in House Bill 238, which allows the chief of wildlife later to pursue restitution, be retained.
Mr. Taylor also noted that with the value system that would be set up under the proposal, some buck antlers exceeding $1,000 in value would make the case a felony, which, of course, is a serious step into big-time crime.
Mr. Latta noted that the bill is not just about trophy-deer antlers, either. For smaller bucks the value would be $500 and $250 for any antlerless deer. Wild turkey would go to $500 from $300, black bear, for which there is no hunting season, would be set at a $1,000 value, and river otter would be valued at $500.
For fish, the restitution fee would go from $10 apiece to $50 apiece for smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, striped bass, hybrid striped bass, steelhead trout, brown trout, muskellunge, northern pike, flathead catfish, saugeye, sauger, and walleye.
"The ducks get real expensive," Mr. Latta noted.
Redhead, canvasback, black, pintail, hen mallard, and scaup would go to $250 each from the current $50. A bald eagle or a peregrine falcon would go to $2,500 each from $1,000, making their taking a felony.
Wildlife and fish are economically very important to Ohio, the lawmaker said, adding that the state ranks sixth nationally in hunting-related retail sales at $1.5 billion and ninth in retail fishing sales at $1.8 billion. Nature watching-related sales are worth $600 million, and the hunting industry ranks fourth nationally in the number of jobs it supports. So it is an economy worth protecting.
Mr. Latta said he hoped that the bill would clear the House by the end of the month and be sent on to the Senate. The bill is to be assigned to the House Agriculture and Nature Resources Committee next week for initial hearings.
Mr. Latta said that poachers, of course, might be opposed to such legislation. But when it comes to any hearing entertaining opposition testimony, "I don't expect you're going to see them show up."